Two weeks ago, most of us witnessed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in disbelief. We sat, riveted to our TV sets, as New Orleans' 17th Street Levee broke, and an entire culture was flooded out.
Tipitina's and Preservation Hall were dry, we were told, but one glance at footage of the Treme and Ninth Ward neighborhoods confirmed our worst fears: Most of the city's indigenous clubs -- tiny, gritty rooms such as Little People's Place and Vaughn's Lounge, Mr. Quintron's Spellcaster Lodge and the Saturn Bar -- were submerged in the toxic gumbo of Lake Pontchartrain water, gasoline, and human waste. The Maple Leaf Bar, located Uptown, and the Howlin' Wolf, which is in the Warehouse District, didn't fare much better. And there on CNN, we saw the New Orleans that music lovers adored being washed away, as floodwaters battered the late Ernie K-Doe's Mother In Law Lounge onscreen.
New Orleans' music clubs were a lost cause -- but what about the musicians? Rumors abounded, from which truths eventually emerged. Fats Domino was missing. Fats was spotted on a third-floor balcony and rescued by a daring helicopter pilot. Fats was finally safe in Baton Rouge. Producer/musician Allen Toussaint either rode the storm out in the Superdome or a first-class hotel before riding a chartered school bus to safety. Members of the Rebirth Brass Band holed up at the top of apartment buildings before reuniting in Houston, where they performed for grateful evacuees at the Astrodome. Soul singer Irma Thomas was also on the missing list. Turns out she'd played a gig in Austin just before Katrina hit and was alive and well at a relative's house in Gonzalez, Louisiana.
Memphis native Alex Chilton of Big Star and the Box Tops -- a resident of the Ninth Ward for more than a decade -- was also listed as missing after he'd dismissed evacuation plans and handed off his car to friends instead. Photos of a Chilton look-alike sitting among storm victims in the French Quarter circulated while fans predicted the worst. Luckily, Chilton turned up in Houston a few days later.
About 50 musicians wound up in Memphis: Swinging Demons bandleader Johnny Angel, Persuaders guitarist Jason Craft, Bucktown All-Stars guitarist Reid Wick, Die Rotzz drummer Paul Artigues, and singer Aaron Neville.
"There are so many open-ended questions right now," Wick says. "It could literally be six months to a year before people are allowed back in [to New Orleans]."
The Uptown resident, who also works at Loyola College of Music, was lucky to escape. Wick rode out the storm with his wife, Michelle Zeller, at Memorial Medical Center, where she is employed as a nurse. "We stayed at the hospital thinking the hurricane would pass, but we didn't realize the levee would break," he explains. "We spent three-and-a-half days loading patients onto helicopters before a fishing boat pulled up to the second floor of the emergency room."
Angel evacuated to Houston the day before Katrina hit, then tried to return home. In Brookhaven, Mississippi, he learned of the levee breach and turned north to Memphis, where he's been stuck ever since. "My house was Uptown too," he says. "Possessions are possessions, but I'm wondering if I have a tree in my living room. How do you decorate something like that?" he wryly asks.
Craft even went for a bicycle ride the day after the hurricane to assess damage to friends' houses. When he saw the floodwaters rising on his block of Marengo Street, he knew it was time to abandon New Orleans.
All three say that Memphis welcomed them with open arms. The Beale Street Merchants Association was one of the first, offering free meals to the stranded, helping them find employment on Beale Street, and distributing donated instruments at Rum Boogie Café. Last Thursday, the association hosted a benefit called Relief on the Half Shell in Handy Park where a half-dozen local bands raised money for displaced musicians.
The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences was also quick to act. Its MusiCares Foundation earmarked a million dollars for hurricane relief, offering basic living expenses, medical expenses, and instruments for affected musicians from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. NARAS' Memphis chapter also announced two fund-raisers -- the Memphis Cares: One Heart, One Voice concert on Beale Street on Thursday, September 22nd, and the Recording Academy Honors, to be held in the Convention Center Ballroom on Saturday, October 22nd. Proceeds from both events will go directly toward MusiCares' hurricane relief efforts. The Memphis chapter also hired Wick to work with displaced musicians.
"The news coverage has been horrific, but until you actually talk to these people, you can't grasp it," says Jon Hornyak, senior executive director of NARAS' Memphis chapter. "There were so many musicians down there living day-to-day. Now everybody's tossed all over the country."
Two local indie record shops also have pitched in for the cause. Shangri-La Records owner Jared McStay planned a Katrina Relief Record Swap for last weekend. Meanwhile, more than $70,000 has been raised nationwide for the Red Cross via a rare-record auction on SoulStrut.com started by Shangri-La employees Andrew McCalla and Eric Hermeyer.
"I'm sick to my stomach," McStay says. "I wanted to do something for those people. I don't have a ton of money to give them, but I do have a ton of records."
"Nerdy obsessiveness is finally good for something," Hermeyer says, noting that one of McCalla's auction items, a pristine copy of James Brown's first album, netted $225 for hurricane victims.
Goner Records' message board was the catalyst for more fund-raising. "People on the Goner board wanted to help friends directly if they could," explains Eric Friedl, co-owner of the Cooper-Young store. Clothing and records intended for displaced Goners starting over in Memphis were also sent to the store, where New Orleans resident Chris Martel set up a free computer station for evacuees to check their e-mail.
"I've gotten a great reception in Memphis. People here want to help any way they can," Angel says. "I lost everything in New Orleans, but I'm making friends here."